I am not one of those fans who has any illusions about the man. Yes, when he died he was a grotesquely overweight junkie. Yes, there are many other performers who were more talented and innovative than he. Yes, Big Mama Thornton’s version of “Hound Dog” is WAY better than Elvis’s. Yes, he’s example no. 1 of how corrupting fame is. But I do think he was more interesting and complicated than he is popularly portrayed. And I love his voice. I hear it and I melt. If he’d been born into an affluent family he would’ve wound up a famous tenor.
In the New York Times this week Peter Guralnick argues that Elvis Presley was not a racist:
Just how committed [Elvis] was to a view that insisted not just on musical accomplishment but fundamental humanity can be deduced from his reaction to the earliest appearance of an ugly rumor that has persisted in one form or another to this day. Elvis Presley, it was said increasingly within the African-American community, had declared, either at a personal appearance in Boston or on Edward R. Murrow’s “Person to Person” television program, “The only thing Negroes can do for me is buy my records and shine my shoes.”
That he had never appeared in Boston or on Murrow’s program did nothing to abate the rumor, and so in June 1957, long after he had stopped talking to the mainstream press, he addressed the issue—and an audience that scarcely figured in his sales demographic—in an interview for the black weekly Jet.
After citing lots of evidence of Elvis’ not being the racist redneck he’s often portrayed as Guralnick moves on to talk about why Presley is often seen that way:
As Chuck D perceptively observes, what does it mean, within this context [of social inequalty], for Elvis to be hailed as “king,” if Elvis’s enthronement obscures the striving, the aspirations and achievements of so many others who provided him with inspiration?
Elvis would have been the first to agree. When a reporter referred to him as the “king of rock ‘n’ roll” at the press conference following his 1969 Las Vegas opening, he rejected the title, as he always did, calling attention to the presence in the room of his friend Fats Domino, “one of my influences from way back.”
But Guralnick doesn’t talk about other reasons Elvis is seen this way. Like the oodles and oodles of paraphernalia that associates Elvis with the confederate flag. And also because, rightly or wrongly, white southerners are frequently viewed by the rest of the US as racists. Elvis was a white southerner therefore . . . Elvis appropriated black music therefore . . .
I have friends who hate Elvis because he was loved by the good ole boy racist sexist dropkicks they went to school with in the South. Elvis is forever tainted by that good ole boy worship.
Everything I’ve read about Elvis convinces me that for his time and place he was less racist than many of his peers. He understood the origins of the music he played which is more than I can say for many white boy rock ‘n’ rollers over the years. Does that mean he wasn’t racist at all? Unlikely given the systemic racial inequality that prevails in this and every other country and infects all our brains. Does it mean he was a nice guy? Who knows? He certainly wasn’t in his later drug-addicted days. Junkies are hard work. And rich junkies who are worshipped by millions of people world wide? Ugh.
I think it matters whether or not he was overtly racist. People who hold him up as a symbol of the white South and a believer in white supremacy should know he wasn’t a white supremacist.
It’s very hard to separate the symbol from the person. Especially when the person was as big a mess as Elvis was.
Excuse me, I’m going to go have a little cry and play “Long Black Limousine” now.